Big changes are coming to Grantchester, the quaint Cambridgeshire village with a disturbingly high murder rate. That’s the main message of the 2-hour season premiere of PBS’s Grantchester, a British import starring James Norton as a Sidney Chambers, a handsome vicar in 1950s England with a penchant for whiskey, women and solving crimes with the help of his buddy, detective Geordie Keating (Robson Green).
It’s 1956, and the modern world is beginning to intrude on this charming hamlet. In the episode’s opening scene, Geordie is lamenting the popularity of “that fellow with the pelvis.” The brief chase scene that follows takes place to the sounds of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” But it’s not just the tunes that are changing. A group of American civil rights activists have arrived in Cambridge, and their visit is causing more than a little tension.
The protest outside of Reverend Todd’s speech quickly turns ugly, with a racist audience members interrupts his talk and someone sets off fireworks that are mistaken for gunshots and send the audience members scrambling. In the ensuing chaos, the Reverend’s son Charles is stabbed to death. Is this the work of the local “Keep Britain White” contingent, or is someone else responsible?
Naturally, Sidney and Geordie are on the case, with the former clearly troubled by the murder but also thrilled to have something to do other than attend deadly dull parish council meetings. The fact that getting involved with the investigation means getting to spend more time with the Reverend’s attractive daughter Violet surely doesn’t hurt. Faster than you can say a Lord’s Prayer, Sidney and Violent have fallen into bed, though she makes it clear that she views their relationship as nothing more than a fling.
Sidney and Geordie continue to investigate, getting a valuable tip from fellow clergyman Will Davenport (Tom Britteny), though he only gives up the information reluctantly. This sequence does a good job of introducing Davenport’s character, who is set to take over from Norton when he leaves the series. (More on that in a bit.)
Eventually, it turns out that the racist protesters had nothing to do with the murder. Rather, the killer is the Cambridge prof who invited them to England in the first place, but who was enraged when he saw Charles dancing with his wife. Case closed, Reverend Todd prepares to head home, and Sidney, heartbroken about having to part from Violet, gets drunk and has to be carted back to the vicarage and put to bed by Geordie.
The second half of this extra-long episode (which aired in two parts in the U.K.) concerns Sidney’s investigation of the murder of a prostitute and his deepening relationship with Violet, who has stayed in England while she waits for her brother’s death certificate.
At this point, it’s clear that Sidney is on his way out of Grantchester. He feels bored and restless in the village, but Violet seems to give him more focus and a sense of purpose. By the episode’s end, he’s saying his goodbyes to the closeted curate Leonard, his uptight housekeeper Mrs. Maguire, and best friend Geordie and preparing to head to America with his new love.
All of this seems to happen a bit quickly — Violet and Sidney have known each other a few weeks at most. It seems likely that once the glow wears off and the realities of being an interracial couple in the U.S. in the 1950s kick in that this relationship might crash and burn like his past affairs. And while Sidney seems to care for Violet, she unfortunately functions in this episode mostly to help white characters feel better about themselves — both Sidney and the prostitutes she inspires to stand up for themselves.
If there’s one thing this two-part premiere makes clear, it’s that it’s time to close the door on Sidney Chambers’s story. At one point, Geordie describes his friend’s life as an “endless merry-go-round. Sin. Feel bad. Drink. Sin. Feel bad. Drink.” That cycle has obviously become untenable for the troubled vicar, and it’s become boring for viewers. Sidney’s replacement reportedly has his own demons to contend with, but they’ll be fresh ones. While Grantchester fans will be sad to see Norton go, some fresh blood will hopefully do the series some good.
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